White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Like any school, Glenard Oak had a complex geography. Not that it was particularly labyrinthine in design. It had been built in two simple stages, first in 1886 as a workhouse (result: large red monstrosity, Victorian asylum) and then added to in 1963 when it became a school (result: gray monolith, Brave New Council Estate). The two monstrosities were then linked in 1974 by an enormous Perspex tubular footbridge. But a bridge was not enough to make the two places one, or to slow down the student body’s determination to splinter and factionalize. The school had learned to its cost that you cannot unite a thousand children under one Latin tag (school code: Laborare est Orare, To Labor is to Pray); kids are like pissing cats or burrowing moles, marking off land within land, each section with its own rules, beliefs, laws of engagement. Despite every attempt to suppress it, the school contained and sustained patches, hangouts, disputed territories, satellite states, states of emergency, ghettos, enclaves, islands. There were no maps, but common sense told you, for example, not to fuck with the area between the garbage cans and the craft department. There had been casualties there (notably some poor sod called Keith, who had his head placed in a vise), and the scrawny, sinewy kids who patrolled this area were not to be messed with—they were the thin sons of the fat men with vicious tabloids primed in their back pockets like handguns, the fat men who believe in rough justice—a life for a life, hanging’s too good for them.

  Across from there: the Benches, three of them in a line. These were for the surreptitious dealing of tiny tiny amounts of drugs. Things like £2.50 of marijuana resin, so small it was likely to be lost in your pencil case and confused with a shredded piece of eraser. Or a quarter of an E, the greatest use of which was soothing particularly persistent period pains. The gullible could also purchase a variety of household goods—jasmine tea, garden grass, aspirin, licorice, flour—all masquerading as Class A intoxicants to be smoked or swallowed round the back, in the hollow behind the drama department. This concave section of wall, depending where you stood, provided low teacher-visibility for smokers too young to smoke in the smokers’ garden (a concrete garden for those who had reached sixteen and were allowed to smoke themselves silly—are there any schools like this anymore?). The drama hollow was to be avoided. These were hard little bastards, twelve-, thirteen-year-old chain-smokers; they didn’t give a shit. They really didn’t give a shit—your health, their health, teachers, parents, police—whatever. Smoking was their answer to the universe, their 42, their raison d’être. They were passionate about fags. Not connoisseurs, not fussy about brand, just fags, any fags. They pulled at them like babies at teats, and when they were finally finished their eyes were wet as they ground the butts into the mud. They fucking loved it. Fags, fags, fags. Their only interest outside fags was politics, or more precisely, this fucker, the chancellor, who kept on putting up the price of fags. Because there was never enough money and there were never enough fags. You had to become an expert in bumming, cadging, begging, stealing fags. A popular ploy was to blow a week’s pocket money on twenty, give them out to all and sundry, and spend the next month reminding those with fags about that time when you gave them a fag. But this was a high-risk policy. Better to have an utterly forgettable face, better to be able to cadge a fag and come back five minutes after for another without being remembered. Better to cultivate a cipherlike persona, be a little featureless squib called Mart, Jules, Ian. Otherwise you had to rely on charity and fag-sharing. One fag could be split in myriad ways. It worked like this: someone (whoever had actually bought a pack of fags) lights up. Someone shouts “halves.” At the halfway point the fag is passed over. As soon as it reaches the second person we hear “thirds,” then “saves” (which is half a third), then “butt!,” then, if the day is cold and the need for a fag overwhelming, “last toke!” But last toke is only for the desperate; it is beyond the perforation, beyond the brand name of the cigarette, beyond what could reasonably be described as the butt. Last toke is the yellowing fabric of the roach, containing the stuff that is less than tobacco, the stuff that collects in the lungs like a time bomb, destroys the immune system, and brings permanent, sniffling, nasal flu. The stuff that turns white teeth yellow.

  Everyone at Glenard Oak was at work; they were Babelians of every conceivable class and color speaking in tongues, each in their own industrious corner, their busy censer mouths sending the votive offering of tobacco smoke to the many gods above them (Brent Schools Report 1990: 67 different faiths, 123 different languages).

  Laborare est Orare:

  Nerds by the pond, checking out frog sex,

  Posh girls in the music department singing French rounds, speaking pig Latin, going on grape diets, suppressing lesbian instincts,

  Fat boys in the PE corridor, wanking,

  High-strung girls outside the language block, reading murder casebooks,

  Indian kids playing cricket with tennis rackets on the football ground,

  Irie Jones looking for Millat Iqbal,

  Scott Breeze and Lisa Rainbow in the toilets, fucking,

  Joshua Chalfen, a goblin, an elder, and a dwarf, behind the science block playing Goblins and Gorgons,

  And everybody, everybody smoking fags, fags, fags, working hard at the begging of them, the lighting of them and the inhaling of them, the collecting of butts and the remaking of them, celebrating their power to bring people together across cultures and faiths, but mostly just smoking them—gis a fag, spare us a fag—chuffing on them like little chimneys till the smoke grows so thick that those who had stoked the chimneys here back in 1886, back in the days of the workhouse, would not have felt out of place.

  And through the fog, Irie was looking for Millat. She had tried the basketball court, the smoking garden, the music department, the cafeteria, the toilets of both sexes, and the graveyard that backed on to the school. She had to warn him. There was going to be a raid, to catch all illicit smokers of weed or tobacco, a combined effort from the staff and the local constabulary. The seismic rumblings had come from Archie, angel of revelation; she had overheard his telephone conversation and the holy secrets of the Parent-Teacher Association; now Irie was landed with a burden far heavier than the seismologist, landed, rather, with the burden of the prophet, for she knew the day and time of the quake (today, two-thirty), she knew its power (possible expulsion), and she knew who was likely to fall victim to its fault line. She had to save him. Clutching her vibrating chub and sweating through three inches of Afro hair, she dashed across the grounds, calling his name, inquiring of others, looking in all the usual places, but he was not with the Cockney barrow-boys, the posh girls, the Indian posse, or the black kids. She trudged finally to the science block, part of the old workhouse and a much-loved blind spot of the school, its far wall and eastern corner affording thirty precious yards of grass, where a pupil indulging in illicit acts was entirely hidden from the common view. It was a fine, crisp autumn day, the place was full; Irie had to walk through the popular tonsil-tennis/groping championships, step over Joshua Chalfen’s Goblins and Gorgons game (“Hey, watch your feet! Mind the Cavern of the Dead!”), and furrow through a tight phalanx of fag smokers before she reached Millat at the epicenter of it all, pulling laconically on a cone-shaped joint, listening to a tall guy with a mighty beard.


  “Not right now, Jones.”

  “But Mill!”

  “Please, Jones. This is Hifan. Old friend. I’m trying to listen to him.”

  The tall guy, Hifan, had not paused in his speech. He had a deep, soft voice like running water, inevitable and constant, requiring a force stronger than the sudden appearance of Irie, stronger, maybe, than gravity, to stop it. He was dressed in a sharp black suit, a white shirt, and a green bow tie. His breast pocket was embroidered with a small emblem, two hands cupping a flame, and something underneath it, too tiny to see. Though no older than Millat, his hair-growing capacity was striking, and his beard aged him considerably.

  “. . . and so marijuana weakens one’s abi
lities, one’s power, and takes our best men away from us in this country: men like you, Millat, who have natural leadership skills, who possess within them the ability to take a people by the hand and lift them up. There is an hadith from the Bukhr, part five, page two: The best people of my community are my contemporaries and supporters. You are my contemporary, Millat, I pray you will also become my supporter; there is a war going on, Millat, a war.”

  He continued like this, one word flowing from another, with no punctuation or breath and with the same chocolatey delivery—one could almost climb into his sentences, one could almost fall asleep in them.

  “Mill. Mill. ’Simportant.”

  Millat looked drowsy, whether from the hash or Hifan wasn’t clear. Shaking Irie off his sleeve, he attempted an introduction. “Irie, Hifan. Him and me used to go about together. Hifan—”

  Hifan stepped forward, looming over Irie like a bell tower. “Good to meet you, sister. I am Hifan.”

  “Great. Millat.”

  “Irie, man, shit. Could you just chill for one minute?” He passed her the smoke. “I’m trying to listen to the guy, yeah? Hifan is the don. Look at the suit . . . gangster stylee!” Millat ran a finger down Hifan’s lapel, and Hifan, against his better instinct, beamed with pleasure. “Seriously, Hifan, man, you look wicked. Crisp.”


  “Better than that stuff you used to go around in back when we used to hang, eh? Back in them Kilburn days. ’Member when we went to Bradford and—”

  Hifan remembered himself. Reassumed his previous face of pious determination. “I am afraid I don’t remember the Kilburn days, brother. I did things in ignorance then. That was a different person.”

  “Yeah,” said Millat sheepishly. “’Course.”

  Millat gave Hifan a joshing punch on the shoulder, in response to which Hifan stood still as a gatepost.

  “So: there’s a fucking spiritual war going on—that’s fucking crazy! About time—we need to make our mark in this bloody country. What was the name, again, of your lot?”

  “I am from the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,” said Hifan proudly.

  Irie inhaled.

  “Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,” repeated Millat, impressed. “That’s a wicked name. It’s got a wicked kung-fu kick-arse sound to it.”

  Irie frowned. “KEVIN?”

  “We are aware,” said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, “that we have an acronym problem.”

  “Just a bit.”

  “But the name is Allah’s and it cannot be changed . . . but to continue with what I was saying: Millat, my friend, you could be the head of the Kilburn branch—”


  “You could have what I have, instead of this terrible confusion you are in, instead of this reliance on a drug specifically imported by governments to subdue the black and Asian community, to lessen our powers.”

  “Yeah,” said Millat sadly, in mid-roll of a new spliff. “I don’t really look at it like that. I guess I should look at it like that.”


  “Jones, give it a rest. I’m having a fucking debate. Hifan, what school you at now, mate?”

  Hifan shook his head with a smile. “I left the English education system some time ago. But my education is far from over. If I can quote to you from the Tabrõzõ, hadith number 220: The person who goes in search of knowledge is on active service for God until he returns and the—”

  “Mill,” whispered Irie, beneath Hifan’s flow of mellifluous sound. “Mill.”

  “For fuck’s sake. What? Sorry, Hifan, mate, one minute.”

  Irie pulled deeply on her joint and relayed her news. Millat sighed. “Irie, they come in one side and we go out the other. No biggie. It’s a regular deal. All right? Now why don’t you go and play with the kiddies? Serious business here.”

  “It was good to meet you, Irie,” said Hifan, reaching out his hand and looking her up and down. “If I might say so, it is refreshing to see a woman who dresses demurely, wearing her hair short. KEVIN believes a woman should not feel the need to pander to the erotic fantasies of Western sexuality.”

  “Er, ye-ah. Thanks.”

  Feeling sorry for herself and more than a bit stoned, Irie made her way back through the wall of smoke and stepped through Joshua Chalfen’s Goblins and Gorgons game once more.

  “Hey, we’re trying to play here!”

  Irie whipped round, full of swallowed fury. “AND?”

  Joshua’s friends—a fat kid, a spotty kid, and a kid with an abnormally large head—shrank back in fear. But Joshua stood his ground. He played oboe behind Irie’s second viola in the excuse for a school orchestra, and he had often observed her strange hair and broad shoulders and thought he might have half a chance there. She was clever and not entirely unpretty, and there was something in her that had a strongly nerdy flavor about it, despite that boy she spent her time with. The Indian one. She hung around him, but she wasn’t like him. Joshua Chalfen strongly suspected her of being one of his own. There was something innate in her that he felt he could bring out. She was a nerd-immigrant who had fled the land of the fat, facially challenged, and disarmingly clever. She had scaled the mountains of Caldor, swum the River Leviathrax, and braved the chasm Duilwen, in the mad dash away from her true countrymen to another land.

  “I’m just saying. You seem pretty keen to step into the land of Golthon. Do you want to play with us?”

  “No, I don’t want to play with you, you fucking prick. I don’t even know you.”

  “Joshua Chalfen. I was in Manor Primary. And we’re in English together. And we’re in orchestra together.”

  “No, we’re not. I’m in orchestra. You’re in orchestra. In no sense are we there together.”

  The goblin, the elder, and the dwarf, who appreciated a good play on words, had a snivelly giggle at that one. But insults meant nothing to Joshua. Joshua was the Cyrano de Bergerac of taking insults. He’d taken insults (from the affectionate end, Chalfen the Chubster, Posh Josh, Josh-with-the-Jewfro; from the other, That Hippie Fuck, Curly-haired Cocksucker, Shit-eater), he’d taken never-ending insults all his damn life, and survived, coming out the other side to smug. An insult was but a pebble in his path, only proving the intellectual inferiority of she who threw it. He continued regardless.

  “I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

  “Are you taking the piss?”

  “No, I like short hair on girls. I like that androgyny thing. Seriously.”

  “What is your fucking problem?”

  Joshua shrugged. “Nothing. The vaguest acquaintance with basic Freudian theory would suggest you are the one with the problem. Where does all that aggression come from? I thought smoking was meant to chill you out. Can I have some?”

  Irie had forgotten the burning joint in her hand. “Oh, yeah, right. Regular puff-head, are we?”

  “I dabble.”

  The dwarf, elder, and goblin emitted some snorts and liquid noises.

  “Oh, sure,” sighed Irie, reaching down to pass it to him. “Whatever.”


  It was Millat. He had forgotten to take his joint off Irie and was now running over to retrieve it. Irie, about to hand it over to Joshua, turning around in midaction, at one and the same time spotted Millat coming toward her and felt a rumble in the ground, a tremor that shook Joshua’s tiny cast-iron goblin army to their knees and then swept them off the board.

  “What the—” said Millat.

  It was the raid committee. Taking the suggestion of Parent-Governor Archibald Jones, an ex-army man who claimed expertise in the field of ambush, they had resolved to come from both sides (never before tested), their hundred-strong party utilizing the element of surprise, giving no prewarning bar the sound of their approaching feet; simply boxing the little bastards in, thus cutting off any escape route for the en
emy and catching the likes of Millat Iqbal, Irie Jones, and Joshua Chalfen in the very act of marijuana consumption.

  The headmaster of Glenard Oak was in a continual state of implosion. His hairline had gone out and stayed out like a determined tide, his eye sockets were deep, his lips had been sucked backward into his mouth, he had no body to speak of, or rather he folded what he had into a small, twisted package, sealing it with a pair of crossed arms and crossed legs. As if to counter this personal, internal collapse, the headmaster had the seating arranged in a large circle, an expansive gesture he hoped would help everybody speak to and see each other, allowing everybody to express their point and make themselves heard so together they could work toward problem solving rather than behavior chastisement. Some parents worried the headmaster was a bleeding-heart liberal. If you asked Tina, his secretary (not that no one never did ask Tina a bloody thing, oh no, no fear, only questions like So, what are these three scallywags up for, then?), it was more like a hemorrhage.

  “So,” said the headmaster to Tina with a doleful smile, “what are these three scallywags up for, then?”

  Wearily, Tina read out the three counts of “mari-jew-ana” possession. Irie put her hand up to object, but the headmaster silenced her with a gentle smile.

  “I see. That’ll be all, Tina. If you could just leave the door ajar on your way out, yes, that’s it, bit more . . . fine—don’t want anyone to feel boxed in, as it were. OK. Now. I think the most civilized way to do this,” said the headmaster, laying his hands palm up and flat on his knees to demonstrate he was packing no weapons, “so we don’t have everybody talking over each other, is if I say my bit, you each then say your bit, starting with you, Millat, and ending with Joshua, and then once we’ve taken on board all that’s been said, I get to say my final bit and that’s it. Relatively painless. All right? All right.”

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